This article examines two texts in the "reformed coquette" genre to look at changes in views of women's romantic agency and how romantic relationships between women were both presumed by, and a challenge to, the notion of marriage as based on mutual affection.
The rise of a virulently negative attitude toward never-married women in the 18th c. seems to have been a peculiarly English reaction. While negative attitudes toward never-married women appear earlier, the 18th c. saw an increase in hostility. This occurs in parallel with the rise of feminist literature challenging sexist and patriarchal structures, and especially questioning the benefit of marriage to women. The negative screeds against “old maids" presage modern anti-feminist venom in framing singlewomen as simultaneously sexually frustrated and undesirable to men.
There’s a rich amount of data on singlewomen and female-headed households in medieval Germany. Tax records for selected cities in the 14-15th centuries show between 17-25% of tax-paying households headed by women. Widows were often labeled as such in the records but it isn’t alway possible to clearly distinguish never-married women, though estimates suggest they may have been as many as half of these households. This continued in the 16th century with tax records indicating that 20-25% of tax-paying urban households were headed by women.
This is a complex, data-heavy survey of sources for the demographics of singlewomen, the overall (very complex) patterns that emerge, and an analys of the theoretical frameworks that attempt to explain those patterns. For my summary, I’ve rearranged the topics to try to focus on single variables at a time.
Male-centric views of sexuality frame singlewomen either as lonely and frustrated (spinsters) or as dangerously promiscuous (whores), but this dichotomy ignores the possibility of the sexual desires of singlewomen being satisfied by other women. There is an idealized image of pre-modern lesbian that finds its epitome in the Ladies of Llangollen type from the late 18th century.
Introductory chapter to a collection of papers on the topic described in the title. The collection in general addresses the question of women living outside the “nuclear family”, and especially looks at systems and categories rather than treating singlewomen as isolated anomalies.